Skip Navigation

Home Blogs Partner spotlight: Putting the science of reading into practice

Partner spotlight: Putting the science of reading into practice

Midwest | March 28, 2023

Five elementary school students sit on the floor reading in a library with stacks of books behind them

Guest author Heidi Turchan is an early literacy consultant for Calhoun Intermediate School District in Michigan, where she provides coaching and professional learning for teachers and support staff. As a member of the REL Midwest Strategies to Improve Reading (STIR) partnership, Turchan is helping educators in Battle Creek Public Schools bridge research to practice to improve literacy instruction in grades K–1. In this post, Turchan provides tips and guidance related to the use of instructional routines based on her on-the-ground experience as an early literacy consultant.

I was a science-of-reading nerd before it was cool! My journey started 25 years ago when I became a dyslexia practitioner to support students with intensive reading needs. The science of reading was borne from the work of researchers studying how children learn to read. This body of knowledge is based on decades of research conducted by experts from multiple disciplines, including psychology, education, and neurology. Researchers have studied what happens in the brain during reading and what needs to take place instructionally to enable skillful reading.1–6 Educators who use systematic, explicit instruction to teach important components of literacy use a structured literacy approach.  

All students benefit from explicit, systematic instruction rooted in the science of reading.7–11 Because my background was in speech pathology, using the structured literacy approach to support any struggling reader made perfect sense to me. Now, as the science of reading is becoming more mainstream, educators can apply the empirically based research to classroom practice by integrating structured literacy into reading instruction.

Structured literacy instruction builds on the key components that the National Reading Panel identified in 2005. Since that time, the panel has emphasized the importance of focusing phonics instruction on grapheme-phoneme-level relationships rather than larger-unit phonics approaches, which can lead to better reading outcomes. This evidence has continued to be foremost in ensuring reading success.12

To explore strategies for integrating the science of reading and structured literacy into classroom instruction, Battle Creek Public Schools, along with Lansing School District, is working with REL Midwest as a part of the Strategies to Improve Reading (STIR) partnership. This partnership aims to increase reading skills in kindergarten and grade 1 by developing, testing, and refining an approach for integrating evidence-based strategies to improve literacy outcomes for students. Read on to dig into structured literacy and the key components that educators can implement to set up young readers for success.

Defining structured literacy

Structured literacy instruction is systematic, meaning that it is based on a scope and sequence. Teachers provide skills instruction sequenced in a way that makes sense to students and is comprehensive. Systematic instruction is carefully thought out, builds upon prior learning, progresses from simple to complex, and is designed before activities and lessons are planned.13 As instruction continues, concepts move from simple to more complex, connecting to and building upon previously taught content. Structured literacy instruction is also explicit. Teachers provide clear, direct explanations ("I do"), guided practice ("we do"), and frequent opportunities for students to practice ("you do") with timely and specific corrective feedback. As I work with teachers and literacy tutors new to structured literacy, I often hear, "I wish my teachers would have taught me to read this way when I was in school!" or, "I love that the guesswork has been taken out of instruction when I follow this sequence chart and the instructional routines!"

For students in prekindergarten through grade 2, phonological awareness activities, which include identifying and manipulating individual sounds, should be a part of every lesson. The lessons should follow a scope and sequence that intentionally orders prerequisite skills and groups related concepts with direct phonics instruction, or matching letters to sounds, as well as the structure of the English language (for example, syllable patterns, prefixes, suffixes, roots, spelling rules). This scope and sequence ensures that students will deliberately be taught reading and spelling strategies that they will be encouraged to use throughout their life. 

The key components of structured literacy

Structured literacy teaches students how language components work together. Each piece of a structured literacy lesson builds on prior knowledge introduced in a previous lesson. This continuous review of concepts helps students solidify the skills being taught so they can apply them in other areas of learning. Because sequential and cumulative review is important, it is essential not to skip it. I see this too often in classrooms when teachers are feeling pressed for time.

I describe the key steps of a sample structured literacy lesson below as well as strategies for using the key components of structured literacy to put the science of reading into practice. Because of the structured manner of the instructional routines I suggest below, the instruction is carried out at a brisk pace moving seamlessly between each drill so it is possible to get through the content in a 30- to 40-minute phonics block.

Step 1: Warm up

I recommend starting a structured literacy lesson with phonological awareness practice. In grades K–2, this effort includes a 5- to 7-minute warm up for Tier 1 ("Let's get your ears warmed up for our phonics lesson by practicing our sounds!"). Written language is built from speech sounds, so educators need to begin each lesson with auditory activities that manipulate syllables and sounds. Helping children hear and manipulate phonemes, or the smallest units of sound, lays an important foundation for later associating letters with sounds.

Step 2: Teach and review previously taught concepts

A key characteristic of structured literacy instructional routines is to teach and review previously taught concepts. This practice supports student mastery of the content.

  • Visual drill (decoding) to see a letter and say the correct sound(s): The purpose of this drill is for students to develop automatic recall when they see a letter, or grapheme (the smallest unit of written language), of its corresponding sound. The teacher shows students a letter card, points to it, and says the letter's name. Students then repeat the letter name and vocalize the corresponding sound. The visual drill always changes: Add new cards as you teach a new concept. Remove cards after students achieve automaticity, meaning they give you the correct sound(s) without hesitation. A good rule of thumb is to have five to eight consonants or consonant clusters. After you introduce vowels, they will remain in the visual/reading review because there are numerous vowel sounds.
  • Auditory drill (encoding) to hear a sound and write the corresponding letter: The purpose is for students to hear a sound and automatically retrieve the multiple ways they know how to write out the sound. In this drill, the teacher says a sound. Students echo the sound to feel it on their speech organs and then write the corresponding letter. As students learn more advanced spellings based on sounds, the teacher's nonverbal cue is to hold up fingers for the number of ways they know how to spell the letter based on the sound they hear (for example, if you have taught the students four ways to write out the /o/ sound, you would hold up four fingers).

Often, teachers delete this portion of the review, but it's important to include visual and auditory drills in every lesson. Both help connect the orthographic and phonological processors in the brain and work on reciprocal processes. 

  • Reading and spelling review: A daily review of previously taught concepts is also important for students to reach automaticity, meaning the rapid, effortless ability to recognize words. The words provided to students should include letters and sounds taught in previous lessons. Encoding practices, or spelling reviews, include teaching proper letter formation and spelling and should be done every lesson with six to nine words for previously taught concepts to ensure mastery.

Step 3: Introduce new concepts

Because reading instruction blocks vary in length, new concepts in the instructional routine can be taught over the course of 1 week. To introduce a new concept, the teacher explicitly explains it to students (for example, "Today, we are going to learn when and why to use -tch"). Next, the teacher displays the letter/sound card and reminds students that they already know one way to spell /ch/ using ch. "Now, when we hear /ch/ at the end of a one-syllable, short-vowel word, it is spelled with -tch."
When bringing new content into instruction, it is important to give students many opportunities to respond and to practice words to read, phrases to read, and spelling exercises. Explore the following strategies to introduce new concepts.

Guided practice: I Do, We Do, You Do:

  • I do: The teacher displays the word match, underlines the vowel, and says, "The vowel is pronounced / ă/ because it is closed in by the -tch. We see one vowel, so we will use -tch at the end of a one-syllable word with a short-vowel sound." The teacher then demonstrates two or three additional words with the same explicit wording.
  • We do: The teacher involves students in the analysis of -tch words displayed for all students by underlining the single vowel and reading the word.
  • You do: Students analyze the words by underlining the single vowel and then reading the words.

  • Words to read in isolation. The teacher provides a list of -tch words. Students can read the list of words on their own in whisper voices or with a peer. The teacher may choose to circulate around the room and monitor which students are grasping the skill and which may need more targeted small group support.
  • Spelling (encoding): Say it, Sound it, Write it. This procedure allows students to feel the whole word on their speech organs. For each word, students pronounce, or segment, each sound. As they do so, they "map" or write each sound on their phoneme-grapheme mapping page. Students then put the word back together as a whole.
Grid paper showing 3 rows: (row 1) m / a / tch / match; (row 2) i / tch / itch; (row 3) s / w / i / tch / switch
  • Sentence dictation. The teacher dictates a sentence containing -tch word(s). To ensure the students heard the sentence correctly and are aware of the number of words, the students repeat the sentence and then write it independently. The teacher calls the class back together and proofreads their work using the CUPS strategy: Capitalization, Understanding (Does your sentence make sense? Did you leave any words out?), Punctuation, and Spelling.
  • Connected text. A structured literacy curriculum should include a decodable story. Typically, these stories will not contain pictures because the intention is for students to use the strategies they have been taught and avoid relying on pictures to figure out the words. It is important to end with connected text to give students an opportunity to practice what they learned in the lesson and to revisit what they learned previously. Even with a decodable passage, teachers can teach vocabulary and comprehension! Pre-read the passage and select one to three words that may be new to your students and teach their meaning before students read the passage (for example, the -tch passage includes words like switch, etch, and blotch). After students have read the passage, ask open-ended questions about the setting and characters to support comprehension of the text.

The knowledge provided by the science of reading combined with structured literacy implementation can be a game changer for teachers, enabling them to reach a wider range of students than with their previous literacy practices. Teachers want to teach reading efficiently and effectively so that all students learn to read.

Additional resources

To learn more about REL Midwest's work in Michigan, see this blog post and handout for an introduction to the STIR partnership. For more information on how to integrate the science of reading into practice to support literacy success, check out the following resources:

  • Watch REL Midwest's documentary exploring strategies used by two Michigan districts to accelerate reading growth for young learners. The program features an example of research-based professional training aligned with structured literacy along with one district's experiences with integrating data-based individualization to intensify the use of research-based instruction for students with individualized needs.
  • Watch a REL Midwest video that explains the need for systematic, direct, and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics.
  • Watch a REL Midwest video that discusses the most effective evidence-based practices for identifying and assisting struggling readers.
  • Read a REL Midwest blog post highlighting strategies for using data to deliver differentiated reading instruction to students in the early grades.
  • Explore a What Works Clearinghouse practice guide that provides five recommendations to help educators identify struggling readers and implement evidence-based strategies to support their reading achievement.


1 Archer, A., & Hughes, C. (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. Guilford.

2 Brady, S. (2011). Efficacy of phonics teaching for reading outcomes: Indications from post-NRP research. In S. Brady, D. Braze, & C. Fowler (Eds.), Explaining individual differences in reading: Theory and evidence (pp. 69–96). Psychology Press.

3 Fletcher, J. M., Lyon, G. R., Fuchs, L. S., & Barnes, M. A. (2018). Learning disabilities: From identification to intervention (2nd ed.). Guilford.

4 McLeskey, J., Barringer, M-D., Billingsley, B., Brownell, M., Jackson, D., Kennedy, M., Lewis, T., Maheady, L., Rodriguez, J., Scheeler, M. C., Winn, J., & Ziegler, D. (2017). High-leverage practices in special education. Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center.

5 National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. National Institutes of Health.

6 Torgesen, J. K. (2004). Lessons learned from research on interventions for students who have difficulty learning to read. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 355–381). Brookes Publishing Co.

7 Bryant, P., Nunes, T., & Barros, R. (2014). The connection between children's knowledge and use of grapho-phonic and morphemic units in written text and their learning at school. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(2), 211–225.

8 Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Willows, D. M., Schuster, B. V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel's meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(3), 250–287.

9 Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P. (1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(1), 37–55.

10 Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

11 Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., & Tilly, W. D. (2008). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and multi-tier intervention in the primary grades. A practice guide (NCEE 2009-4045). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

12 Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel report. Practical advice for teachers. Learning Point Associates/North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).

13 Adams, M. J. (2001). Alphabetic anxiety and explicit, systematic phonics instruction: A cognitive science perspective. In S. B. Neuman (Ed.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 66–80). Guilford Press.


Heidi Turchan

Heidi Turchan

Connect with REL Midwest